gammatesting_rick's Resident Evil 5 (Xbox 360) review

Lots of Fun, Not Terribly Racist

Cross-posted with my site

First of all, let’s get the big question out of the way first: Is Resident Evil 5 a racist videogame? Not really. It’s just racially insensitive and culturally clumsy. More on that in a bit. The second big question: Is Resident Evil 5 a good game? Yes it is, depending on how you play it, except for the parts that suck.

Capcom had a daunting challenge to follow up the almost universally adored and acclaimed Resident Evil 4, a fun, cool, strange, challenging game that re-wrote a lot of the rules of the standard survival horror series and was almost the only reason to buy a Nintendo Gamecube. Resident Evil 5 tries to build on that success, and it definitely feels like a successor. It controls much the same way, has some enemies that carry over from the last game and has just as nonsensical a plot. It’s also shorter, more streamlined and maybe more racist (again, more on that in a bit).

It’s probably not as good as RE4 on any level, except I had a better time playing it than the previous game.

Resident Evil 5’s main improvement over RE4: online co-op play. Playing co-op, either with someone else in the room with you (in which case you better have a big TV or sit real close), or online is really the only way to play this game. As a solo game you’re teamed up with Sheva, and her AI is just not up to snuff. You’ll spend more time worrying about her and yelling at the screen for her to switch weapons than you will fighting zombies. But put another player on the other controller, and the game really comes alive. I played through the whole game with my brother, and it was a helluva good time for the most part. In a game with a story this wooden and no real scares, most of the drama came from listening to each other cry out for help or more ammo or health. Talking strategy, executing said strategies, and covering each other in a fight is where Resident Evil 5 really shines.

The other vast improvement is the look: RE5 just looks amazing. The African setting, especially in the early levels, is rendered in bright sunshine with vivid colors and details that pop off the screen. The nasty infected monster types are frighteningly vicious and the slums you’re fighting through have a perfect mix of claustrophobia and ghost-town vibes. The game continues to look great throughout, but later levels, like a large ship, are bland and uninteresting compared to the more exotic opening sequences. This is as good as games seem capable of looking right now, and that alone is worth some of the retail price.

I like to think of Resident Evil 5 as a kind of action-puzzle game. Compared to most action games these days, like Gears of War and its innumerable clones, RE5 is slow, almost plodding. You can’t move and shoot at the same time. Turning around sometimes feels like make a three point turn with a school bus, and most of the time the enemy’s approach in a deliberate, almost stately manner. I am totally fine with all these things. As odd as this style of game play is compared to most actioners, it works very well in RE5 once you get used to it. At that point, each set-piece within the game becomes like a big, 3D action puzzle. You have to come up with a combination of moves, shots, ammo usage, environmental assisted kills (thanks conveniently placed gas cans!), and other factors (recharging that awesome flamethrower). When you’re planning these out with a co-op buddy especially, it’s a lot of fun. Even dying isn’t always too frustrating as long as you see where you made a mistake and can learn from it. The core of RE5 is a series of these action puzzles, and during these many sequences the game excels. It’s a ton of fun and you want more and more of it.

And then there are the crappy, super frustrating bits. Like quick-time events that come during cut scenes without warning and you have to hit the button or die. In co-op, that means both of you need to hit it or you die. Like in-game quick-time events where you have to repeatedly hit a button faster than is humanly possible, or at least so it seemed. Or the entire stupid, frustrating, annoying, dumb, did I say frustrating?, final, multi-tiered boss fight. I came out of that final section just plain mad at the game. It took me a little while to calm down, go back and re-play some of the earlier levels, and remember how much fun I had for most of the game. RE5 is a good, solid, beautiful looking, polished game. And it’s only a little bit racist.

Okay, the racism thing: The game takes place in Africa and involves a lot of dark skinned people getting shot by the very white main character. But that’s not racist because the people you’re shooting are now infected zombie-types and your partner, Sheva is black as well. That’s all fine, I buy that. But there’s imagery in the game that raises some uncomfortable associations while at the same time not taking those associations very seriously. Like the level where you blast through a village of grass-skirt wearing, huge wooden masked, spear throwing “natives.” It’s not so much racist, I think, at least not intentionally, as it is goofy and ill-conceived. And that’s a lot of this game’s problem, story and setting wise. It’s all kind of goofy and ill-conceived, with a twisting plot that doesn’t make much sense and which you never really care about. But that level with the “savage” villagers is also a whole lot of fun to play, and mostly you’re just thinking about how to beat it, not what it means. All I really want is for the developers to maybe think issues of race and imagery through a little more the next time around. As it stands, the cultural tone-deafness doesn’t detract from the game any more than the dozen other tone-deaf moments of dialog or setting.

In the end, Resident Evil 5 is a very solid game, and throughout the first 5/6ths of it, I always wanted to keep playing, keep exploring. Even after you beat it, there’s a lot of re-playability as you can go back to earlier levels with your now better-equipped characters. Plus there’s mercenaries mode, costume changes, and plenty of easter eggs to find. If you can get past the ultra-annoying finale, the goofy story, and the occasional hiccups (and you probably can), RE5 is well worth picking up.

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